Ross Simpson takes the time to get his ears accustomed to the new technology, and is blown away by the results...
Back in 1881, long before iPods, iTunes accounts, and heavily compressed audio, headphones had very little to do with music. The earliest versions weighed in at around 10 pounds and were used by telephone operators. Fifteen years later the Electrophone system of headphones was allowing some wealthier individuals to phone up and listen to music produced on a stage miles away.
The first successfully created modern pair of headphones date back to 1910 and were hand made by a man named Nathaniel Baldwin. They were the only way to listen to personal audio signals before the invention of the amplifier.
I can still remember my first pair, enabling me to listen to Dire Straits’ Brothers In Arms without bothering my parents on those long car journeys. A Sony Walkman and cheap plastic headphones resulted in a particularly terrible sound, but that didn’t seem to matter when set against the novelty of personal audio on the move. Headphones have come a long way since then.
Thirty years after Dire Straits I now own a professional recording studio, with great monitors including PMCs, NS10s, and a pair of Sennheiser HD600s for mix reference (usually for pan, reverb, and phase correction). Using these headphones is a clear sign that the ‘sound’ has improved greatly over the years. They are louder, more dynamic, and have an improved frequency response. That said, their phase accuracy, sound stage placement, and levels of distortion are not ‘perfect’.
I’m used to working with a huge variety of music from simple folk to full orchestral arrangements, recorded in some of the best studios in the world. I was therefore keen to learn more about Flare’s R1s and how they might help my workflow and mix corrections.
Flare Audio is a relatively new company, whose founder Davies Roberts is motivated by his desire for undistorted, clear, and detailed sound reproduction. He is the company’s driving force and the pioneer of its innovative technologies.
The R1s certainly look the part with their retro shape, brushed aluminum body, and bright orange anodised rim. It has to be acknowledged that the R1s are weighty, but I like this, as they have the feel of a solid and well-made piece of British engineering, with anti-twist cable and a quality machined finish. Improvement? Perhaps they are a little tight – after longer periods of listening my ears felt slightly cramped and rather warm! Maybe I have a large head? I have discussed this with Davies and I believe they are looking at larger ear pads, although this is a difficult one because the smaller pads create the much needed ‘seal’ against your head. That said, I would be happy to use the current design on a daily basis in the studio.
My first experience of the R1s was listening to the very well produced acoustic 2005 album by Alanis Morrisette, Jagged Little Pill. Having heard Flare’s incredible X5s, Q18s, and other PA speakers and having been run through the company’s radical new technology (more on this later) I thought I knew exactly what to expect. However, nothing could have prepared me for the heart-stopping punch, detail, and accuracy of them. The snare drum on one particular track took me by surprise and made me jump slightly, due to the power behind it. It took around 15 to 20 minutes for my ears to become accustomed to the headphones (Flare say it’s important to give your ears between 15 and 60 minutes to adapt) – they are not your usual over-bright sound that we’ve all become accustomed to. After this initial period, I began to hear for the very first time on headphones, what true, distortion-free sound reproduction could actually be like, and with all the frequencies reaching my ear at the same time. I don’t believe this has ever been possible before the R1s. They simply tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth!
Using the R1s in the studio has been a real asset because I already trust them for critical mix decisions. My colleague Simon Allen even completed a mix on them that was then unchanged on listen-back through the studio monitors!
Now for the heart of the system – that radical new technology. Flare’s patent-pending Vortex technology seen in its PA systems has been applied to both sides of the driver due to the proximity of your head when using headphones. This allows a completely linear movement of the driver through a ‘near perfect’ infinite baffle, thus allowing phase accurate transfer of sound waves to your ear. The company’s ‘Space’ technology is the even-compression force on the structure both front and rear, which eliminates resonance from the central structure with obvious benefits to the sandwiched components, allowing them to operate closer to their theoretical limits. Inside this structure is a bit of closely guarded geometry that constitutes its Vortex ‘porting’ technology. It’s important to stress here that the ‘porting’ does not refer to a reflex port, which is used in many speaker designs to extend bass response by creating a resonance just below the natural cut-off point on the system. Indeed, the whole point of Flare’s Vortex technology is to verge on the ideal infinite baffle, where the front and rear of a driver are separated by an infinitely large brick wall.
What is known as the ‘closed box’ has been the real-world equivalent of an infinite baffle because the rear of the drivers are wholly enclosed. However, this is a bit of a cheat, especially when considering the trapped air inside, which causes friction and cabinet resonances. This is responsible for one of the big problems in loudspeakers, the asymmetry in the driver’s movement. An ‘ideal’ infinite baffle would present no resistance to the compression (inward) movement of a driver. The result of this asymmetry in the driver’s movement is a type of distortion that Davies claims to have eliminated with Vortex technology. That is, the geometry inside the box creating a vortex behind the driver before the air comes out of the rear port. A vortex kills amplitude but maintains phase accuracy and this allows us to do two things: first, to kill amplitude before it comes out of the port; second, to speed up the sound in certain ways so that when the driver presses a compression or a vacuum behind the driver, the ports don’t add any friction. The result of this is a driver that is as happy to go in as it is to come out!
Perhaps, my one concern with Flare and the R1 headphones is their market. Who are the target users? Who will buy them?
People in general notice quickly if they see a bad picture on a cheap TV, but it takes a little more time to notice bad quality audio as it surrounds us all the time in the form of the MP3. ‘Music on demand’ has resulted in the pollution of our airwaves with a highly compressed, uninspiring, distant relative of the original sound recording. Depressingly then will this revelation in audio pass by the average Joe or Jo-ess? Will they lack interest in a pair of headphones that don’t have that ‘Hi-Fi’ sheen their modern day ears have come to expect?
Will, in addition, old-school sound engineers, possibly too stuck in their ways, want to re-learn how to hear, as the R1s will question every mix you have ever created or heard?
So this leaves true audiophiles and modern, enthusiastic sound engineers. There is no doubt in my mind that the R1s are the most honest, true, and best-sounding headphones I have ever heard and I for one believe that, if you are willing to take the time to adjust to them, they will give you in return the most realistic, natural reproduction of sound possible to date – and this reviewer for one will be putting his order in for a pair – at the very reasonable pre-production price of only £499.